Posted on 27th September 2022 by Gary Joseph Cieradkowski
BEFORE THE INTRODUCTION of team approved mascots, beginning with Mr. Met in 1964, baseball had a long tradition of homegrown, fan generated, “outsider” mascots.
One of the first was Cincinnati’s Harry Thobe. Beginning in 1895, his megaphone, white suit, straw hat, one red shoe and one white shoe personage was a fixture at Crosley Field until his death in 1950. Boston had Lolly Hopkins, better known as “Megaphone Lolly,” who cheered on both the Red Sox and Braves from 1932 til she passed in 1958. In the 1940s and 50s both the 5 piece “Dodgers Sym-PHONY” band and the cowbell-wielding Hilda Chester roamed the Ebbets Field bleachers. In section 34 of the upper deck of Memorial Stadium beer-bellied Baltimorean Wild Bill Hagy made the fans roar when he used his body to spell out O-R-I-O-L-E-S. In 1973, John Adams brought his bass drum to an Indians game, beginning a Cleveland institution that, as far as I know, continues to this day.
But by far the most distinctive of all the outsider mascots was Comiskey Park’s Andy the Clown.
ANDY ROZDILSKY was a child of Chicago’s South Side: Polish and a loyal White Sox fan. He was the youngest of five brothers and one sister. According to his family, as early as age ten Andy found joy in making people laugh. As a teen, he sold hot dogs and scorecards at Comiskey Park, cementing his lifelong love of the White Sox. Trying to be heard above the roar of a crowd meant he developed a tremendous set of lungs. As Andy told the Chicago Daily News in 1967, “Things were rough in those days, and you had to really hustle to make a buck. I found out that the louder I hollered the more I sold. I really had a good pitch in those days.”
Andy was a drill press operator before he was drafted into the army in 1942. He served just over a year before he was discharged for a pre-existing medical condition. After the war, he drove a hearse before becoming a clerk in the research division of International Harvester. He also took time to marry Helen Novak and start a family that would eventually include a son and two daughters.
On paper, Andy Rozdilsky had the ideal Eisenhower-era life: a great job, loving wife, and growing family in a nice Chicago neighborhood. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus and a member of a bowling league. But Andy wasn’t content with being typical. He had retained his childhood joy in making others laugh. He developed a clown persona that became a fixture of his South Side neighborhood where he entertained kids and adults alike. But Andy’s talents were too prodigious to be contained within his Chicago neighborhood. He needed a bigger stage.
THE STORY OF Andy the Clown begins in 1960. Just for kicks, Andy showed up for his weekly bowling league wearing a homemade clown suit. His teammates loved it, and when the gang went to a White Sox game that night, Andy decided to keep the suit on. The group arrived well before game time, and Andy roamed the stands. He quickly realized that not only did he love working a giant-sized audience, but that the South Side Sox faithful loved his shtick. He found the stadium-wide adulation addicting and wanted more. He didn’t have to want for long. By chance Andy won 1st prize in a Knights of Columbus raffle: White Sox season tickets.
Soon “Andy the Clown” was a fixture at Comiskey Park. His joyous persona seemed to add that certain something that made a summer night game in Comiskey something special. As the White Sox battled the Yankees for the pennant, Andy honed his clown craft.
The original low-budget homemade costume gave way to a pro-model clown outfit. His basic look changed only slightly over the next thirty years: red and white polka dotted top and pantaloons, a ring of obligatory ruffles around the neck, white grease-painted face with wide red smiling lips and standard issue big red feet. To personalize his attire, Andy added a red and white mini-bowler hat, a faded red light-up nose, and an improbable set of thick Buddy Holly style horn-rimmed glasses.
His act was classic clown. A favorite was to direct an unsuspecting Sox fan’s attention to a five dollar bill laying unattended on the concrete floor. Just as the jubilant South Sider was about to pick up the free five spot, Andy would retract the bill into his hand and call out “Gotcha!” But the main act Andy was known for was the way his nose would light up whenever he shook a child’s hand. I’ve talked to several South Siders, and most fondly remember their first time meeting Andy and the joy at seeing his nose light up. That’s not to say Andy wouldn’t get a little bawdy on occasion; most famously, in 1981, he sat down in then Chicago mayor Jane Byrne’s lap, lit up his nose, and said to her husband “Your wife’s turning me on.”
Unlike modern corporate mascots, Andy the Clown wasn’t some silent furry. At some point early on Andy realized the powerful lung capacity and piercing voice he developed as a vendor back in the 1930s was just the thing he needed to make his presence known in the ballpark.
Gooooooo yoooouuuu Whiiiite Sooooxxx!
Andy’s high-volume, stretched out voice became as intertwined into the distinctive sounds of Comiskey Park as Nancy Faust’s organ and the exploding scoreboard.
Then, three-quarters through the 1960 season, the inevitable happened. A White Sox official approached him and asked the dreaded questions: who had given him permission to perform and who did he work for?
With the introduction of the big bad corporate MLB guy, most feel-good stories like this would come to an abrupt halt – but not Andy’s. As he told the Chicago Daily News, “I told him I didn’t work for anyone. Then he said to call before I came out next time.” Andy did, and the team told him to come to the game. He went to that game and didn’t stop for the next thirty years.
WHEN ANDY BEGAN his reign in 1960, the White Sox were owned by Bill Veeck. Veeck, as most baseball fans know, was le enfant terrible of the National Pastime, known for such gags as sending a midget to the plate as a pinch hitter, Disco Demolition Night, and constructing Comiskey’s iconic exploding scoreboard with its ten electric pinwheels. Obviously, Veeck was a man who could appreciate a pro bono clown like Andy.
When his free season tickets expired, Veeck made sure Andy was given free admission for each game and, when he sold the club, the new owners followed suit. Veeck re-purchased the Sox in 1975 and unsurprisingly kept the tradition alive.
As Andy the Clown’s fame grew, he expanded his kingdom beyond Comiskey Park. He would occasionally make an appearance at Wrigley Field for Bears games and Chicago Stadium for the Blackhawks. If you were opening a children’s savings account at Western National Bank, you could choose as your complimentary gift an Andy the Clown bedside lamp. When a car lot or supermarket opened south of the Loop, chances are Andy the Clown was there. But Andy didn’t just follow the green – he legitimately loved bringing people joy. Vacations were spent not in the Bahamas but traveling to children’s hospitals where his red nose lit up the hearts of countless kids in desperate need of a laugh.
TODAY THERE’S an almost universal dislike of clowns. I’m not quite sure when that came about, but when Andy began his tenure at Comiskey, a clown was still an innocent figure of fun that could be enjoyed by all. I think Chicago-area serial killer John Wayne Gacy probably had a lot to do with the anti-clown movement. His arrest in December 1978 revealed that in between killing drifters Gacy worked kids’ parties as “Patches the Clown.” One would think that being another Chicago-based clown would have brought about a sharp decline in Andy’s popularity as well. However, I talked to a dozen fellas who used to go to Comiskey Park in the late seventies and early eighties. Not one looked back with any creepy feelings, even after the Gacy stuff made national news. In fact, Andy the Clown became even more beloved to the Sox fans.
If you’re an old baseball traditionalist, it’s not hard to see why Andy the Clown remained a popular part of White Sox baseball. By the mid-1970s, times were changing. Baseball was losing out to football as America’s game. Owners tried all sorts of gimmicks to bring fans back to the ballpark: annoying walk-up songs, the bullpen car, C-list “celebrities” singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch… But when the San Diego Chicken appeared in 1974 and the Phillie Phanatic followed shortly afterward, a new era dawned: that of the corporate team-approved mascot.
In 1981, the White Sox were sold to an investment group led by Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn. At the time, the Cubs and Wrigley Field were considered a lost cause, while the White Sox and Comiskey Park were thought to have much more potential for success. Though a pennant was not impending, the Sox consistently fielded winning teams, and Comiskey was a much grander ballpark than Wrigley. Reinsdorf and Einhorn acted like the successful investors they were and started maneuvering the team towards a more professional and respectable ballclub, run like a Fortune 500 corporation. A rogue volunteer clown approaching retirement age doing old-timey gags wasn’t the refined, modern, and slick image the new owners wanted for their team. However, the media sensation generated by the San Diego Chicken and Philly Phanatic whenever they came on the field was exactly what the new White Sox owners wanted. Reinsdorf and Einhorn hired the ad agency that spawned the Phanatic. The mad men came up with the brilliant idea that two was better than one and created “Ribbie” and “Roobarb,” a pair of completely unoriginal furry things that had no connection whatsoever with the White Sox, Comiskey Park or the South Siders who rooted for the team. What Ribbie and Roobarb were, and Andy the Clown was not, were completely owned and controlled by the team ownership.
As the final googly eye was sewn on Roobarb’s head and the actors completed their rigorous training in pro mascoting, the White Sox front office began planning the overthrow of Andy the Clown. On August 27, 1981, the White Sox were returning from a long road trip that saw them battle their way into first place. Management thought that surely the ecstasy and celebration that would fill the stadium when the first place Sox took the field would obscure a clown coup and be the perfect atmosphere to launch baseball’s newest front office-approved mascots. Co-owner Eddie Einhorn had one of the Sox press aides tell Andy he was no longer welcome to appear in costume at Comiskey Park. This was Ribbie and Roobarb turf now.
The backlash was swift and, frankly, quite frightening. A spontaneous grassroots campaign started by WLS-TV sports anchor Al Lerner unleashed a blitzkrieg of phone calls from outraged fans demanding Andy the Clown be resurrected. Within a day – yes that’s right, ONE DAY – Einhorn reluctantly invited Andy back. But there were stipulations. Andy was to restrict his clowning to the upper decks and beneath the stands. All other areas of the ballpark were Ribbie and Roobarb country. In turn, the White Sox would pay Andy a yearly salary of $1,000 and provide lifetime box seats. An armistice was declared, and an uneasy peace settled over Comiskey Park.
THROUGHOUT THE 1980s, a Cold War was waged within Comiskey Park. The Sox management pushed Ribbie and Roobarb on the fans hard. Unfortunately, the minds that brought us the Philly Phanatic hit a creative wall when it came to Ribbie and Roobarb. According to the great website Southsidesox.com, “Ribbie was a purple anteater and Roobarb looked like the love child of the San Diego Chicken and a Swiffer.” Several other accounts call the pair an LSD experiment gone wrong. To their credit, the ChiSox faithful weren’t buying it. The furry duo became probably the most hated mascots in MLB history. According to my sources, Ribbie and Roobarb were ceaselessly mocked by everyone from adults to small children.
The final salvo in the Mascot Cold War came in 1986 when the White Sox management attempted to move the team out of Chicago’s South Side and into a far flung suburb. Unsurprisingly, Ribbie and Roobarb spearheaded the team-generated publicity campaign, appearing at suburban rallies to try to gin up support for a new taxpayer funded ballpark. Andy the Clown, on the other hand, appeared at homespun “Keep the Sox in Chicago” rallies. Ultimately, the Sox stayed in the South Side, and Ribbie and Roobarb were unceremoniously dropped in 1988.
But it was a pyrrhic victory for Andy the Clown. The new Comiskey Park would be the most state of the art ballpark to come along in a generation; the perfect way for Reinsdorf and Einhorn to bring to life their vision for making the White Sox a 21st century team. It was also the perfect opportunity to retire Andy the Clown.
LATE IN THE 1990 season, Andy reluctantly agreed not to appear in costume at the new park, telling the Chicago Tribune, “It’s OK, though. I’m a pretty tired clown.” His streak of mascoting had to be a world record, at least in baseball. He tried his best to appear at every home game – one time he showed up at the ballpark an hour after being released from a four day hospital stay for a bleeding ulcer! Since 1961, Andy had missed exactly one Sox home opener, and that was in 1989, the day after his beloved wife Helen passed away.
On Friday September 28, 1990, the White Sox paid modest tribute to Andy’s three decades of unsolicited service by presenting him with a commemorative plaque before the game. Interviewed the following morning on local radio, Andy said he wished he was given something a little more significant like “a Zenith TV.” South Siders immediately responded and, before the show ended, he was given two TVs, a La-Z-Boy recliner, free stereo system repair and gifts for his children.
Andy tried to stay away from the new ballpark but found he could not. According to Andy’s daughter, “It was tough for my dad. For a while he put the Cubs on at home.” But once a Sox fan, always a Sox fan. The early 1990s would sometimes find Andy roaming the stands in civilian attire, except for his red mini-bowler hat. Fans that recognized him were encouraged to tip him a buck or two if they wanted a picture with the old clown. When White Sox officials heard of the illicit trade, they shut it down fast.
One of his last mass-market appearances was on a pay-per-view New Year’s Eve special hosted by Steve Dahl, the shock-jock behind the infamous “Disco Demolition Derby Night” at old Comiskey Park years before. In a scene that legendary Chicago Sun-Times writer Richard Roeper described “Fellini-esque,” Andy joined a coterie of little people, strippers, guitarist Joe Walsh, some Bears players, and minor local celebs to ring in 1992. At one point in the night Andy confided to Roeper, “They officially retired me after all those years, but they didn’t even give me an Andy the Clown Day.”
On the night of Thursday, September 21, 1995, Andy collapsed in his South Side home. He was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital but passed away before midnight. He was 77. Eight nights later the White Sox paid tribute to him when the Jumbotron scoreboard lit up with archival footage of Andy the Clown in his prime, accompanied by a stirring rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”
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The idea for this piece goes to Tony Murawski. For years I would get out of the blue phone calls from him asking if I was going to do something on Andy the Clown. In all honesty, I was reluctant to do so, mascots not being my thing. But the more I looked into Andy’s story, the more intrigued I was.
This guy was a pure example of the ultimate fan. One little bit of info I didn’t include in my piece was the fact that Andy attended all three All-Star Games held in Comiskey Park: 1933 as a vendor; 1950 as a fan; and 1983 as Andy the Clown. And beyond being a fan, Andy was a gentle soul who only wanted to bring joy to others. In researching this story, I found myself uncharacteristically buying a piece of memorabilia related to Andy the Clown. It is a 1970s business card of his with a color photo on one side and this written on the other: “Andy the Clown says a smile wins friends, chases blues, lightens work, costs nothing, so keep smiling.”
My respect for Andy only grew when each veteran South Sider I interviewed shared their gleeful story of meeting Andy the Clown. I must thank one of those South Siders, author and historian Don Zminda, for sharing not only his memories of Andy, but also several personal snapshots of the old clown that I used for reference.
And finally, I have to credit the Chicago Sun-Times articles about Andy written by Richard Roeper. They were a great asset when trying get an idea of who the man was behind the grease paint.
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I hope there’s still room in the modern game for another outsider mascot like Andy the Clown. Our world and the game we love has become so homogenized and carefully designed that there seems to be no room for originality. I hope I’m wrong. I hope somewhere out there is a fan crafting a homemade costume, practicing a proprietary cheer before a bedroom mirror, or loading some oddball instrument in the car on the way to a game to share some unsolicited mascotism with their favorite team.
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